Joe Lhota, gone from the M.T.A. and mindful of Giuliani, resurrects the Staten Island R train

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The R train. (wonggawei via Flickr)
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On Monday two of the candidates running for mayor, one of whom used to run the M.T.A., told a Staten Island audience they think the R train should no longer terminate in Bay Ridge, but rather extend across the Narrows to Staten Island.

"When my father was very ill in the Bronx, it cost me $59 to see my father, from Staten Island to the Bronx," said Erick Salgado, the evangelical minister and Staten Island resident mounting a very longshot Democratic bid for mayor. "So we have to make sure that we extend the R train coming to Staten Island."

Joe Lhota, who had a short, well-regarded stint as M.T.A. chairman before leaving the position prematurely to run for mayor as a Republican, agreed.

"In 1939, Mayor LaGuardia recommended that we have a train, the R train, continue from Bay Ridge over to this island," he told the crowd gathered at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin on Hylan Boulevard. "We need to look at it again. We need to make sure that this island is not the forgotten borough. It is equal to all of the other boroughs and you need to have your fair share of mass transit."

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Lhota has been explicit about wanting to leverage his former boss Rudy Giuliani's "special relationship" with Staten Island, which went strongly for Giuliani in two elections and whose support the Republican nominee will be counting on this year.

So the Staten Island R train makes for good politics, as a gesture of respect from Lhota.

But it's not a particularly realistic idea.

"It’s very expensive, number one," said Jeffrey Zupan, the Regional Plan Association's senior fellow for transportation.

Also: "It’s unclear whether for someone on Staten Island who wants to get to Manhattan it’s going to be much of a travel time improvement over the choices they have now. There’s a limited benefit to it."

And the M.T.A., which isn't exactly flush with cash, "has many other priorities where there is a known measurement of benefits, including the continuation of the Second Avenue beyond the first phase."

The idea of extending the subway, as Lhota noted, has been around quite a while.

In 1911, the New York Times ran a story headlined, "Staten Island expects a boom: Proposed subway under Narrows has stimulating effect on realty."

Nothing ever came of that, but the idea just won't die.

Second Avenue Sagas has a comprehensive write-up of the century-long debate about subway service to the island here

"The reality is that Staten Island is far away from Manhattan and it’s an island and you’ve got to deal with that," said Zupan. "When you move to Staten Island, you’ve got to expect that you’re more isolated than if you live in Brooklyn or the Bronx. That’s just a fact of life.

Zupan said he'd like to hear Lhota explain how he would fund any R-train expansion.

In the meantime, he offered some more feasible alternatives.

Here's one: instead of running big mammoth ferries with excess capacity to and from the island, why not replace them with a larger fleet of smaller boats.

"Instead of running boats every 20 minutes at peak, you run it every 10 minutes," he said. "In other words, halve the waiting time."

Also, how about an "exclusive bus lane" on the Staten Island Expressway in both directions, from near the Goethals Bridge across the Verrazano and onto the BQE "so buses wouldn't be stuck in traffic."

"All of those are attainable certainly in a much shorter time frame than the R train," he said.